Advice from Amy Gutmann for women in the workplace

Amy Gutmann is president of the University of Pennsylvania.
Amy Gutmann is president of the University of Pennsylvania.
Posted: April 11, 2011

Last week, the University of Pennsylvania was host to 29 university presidents and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for an event titled "Empowering Women to Change the World." Penn president Amy Gutmann spoke to Inquirer staff writer Melissa Dribben about her hopes for women.

 Question: Numerous high-level conferences have been held about empowering women. Does anything new ever come out of such meetings?

Amy Gutmann: I think shining a steady spotlight on women's issues is very important. It's the first, not the last, step in making progress.

At the [Penn] colloquium, we focused on some ways to solve the problem. One is to teach leadership skills to young women much earlier in their education. Women are taught to be enablers, but it is also important to teach them to be leaders. How to be assertive in an acceptable way.

Q: How did you learn to do that?

Gutmann: The hard way. I started out thinking my intelligence alone would help me to get ahead, but I learned that it ain't necessarily so. Look at how many of us are at the top. Not enough.

Q: It seems that Philadelphia has few women in leadership. Why is that?

Gutmann: Women have achieved leadership positions in sectors that, when I was a kid, were not thought possible. Philadelphia has women leaders in arts, banking, and business, as well as universities. It's important to focus not on ways and reasons why women have not yet succeeded, but on the ways and reasons we can.

I know we have a bright future. The last three editors at the Daily Pennsylvanian have been women. Since 1984, half of our Rhodes scholars have been women.

This generation of women feels more empowered - certainly more than my own - and for good reason. They're taking the initiative to lead in new ways in collaboration with young men. I hope that we can keep as many of them as possible in Philadelphia. More leadership positions will make that possible.

Q: Drawing on your own experience, what advice do you have for young women negotiating the world of work?

Gutmann: That they will do best by not being afraid of being themselves. There is no single "male leadership" and "female leadership" style. Successful, admirable leaders, whether they wear neckties or necklaces, are creative, highly motivated, and hardworking people who understand the importance of collaboration and team-building.

All evidence shows that diverse leadership teams are more creative and productive. Penn helps to prove this rule. Success in diversifying leadership breeds more success in recruiting the best.

Q: What are the most important skills you bring to your job as president of Penn?

Gutmann: Successfully pinpointing and pursuing our highest strategic priorities: increasing access, integrating knowledge, and engaging locally and globally - that's what drives Penn, and me, forward.

Q: What brings you the greatest satisfaction?

Gutmann: For a start, instituting the best financial-aid policy in Penn's history, substituting grants for loans: Every undergraduate talented enough to be admitted now can afford Penn and graduate loan-free.

I also get enormous satisfaction out of ensuring that the university continues to engage with the Philadelphia community. A transformative project, to open this fall, is Penn Park - 24 acres along the Schuylkill from Walnut to South Streets for all to enjoy.

Q: Given the broad range of challenges women face, from abuse in some nations to glass ceilings in others, how does a university make a difference?

Gutmann: Part of the challenge of leadership is knowing what you as an individual and an institution have the most power to do. We have enormous power through our research to demonstrate what works and what helps women at every level. We aren't going to make sure that young girls and boys are educated equally, but we can bring the data to bear that show how that can be done.

Q: You've been dedicated to promoting civil debate and expanding educational opportunities for everyone. Given the acerbic political climate and the proposed cuts in education funding at all levels, do you wonder if it's hopeless?

Gutmann: My father escaped Nazi Germany and got his whole family out. My mother survived the Great Depression. It would have been easy for them to say it's hopeless. But it is almost always a profound intellectual mistake and a lack of courage to think that a situation like the one we're in is hopeless.

Hope, however, is not a plan. That's something leaders know front and center. It's too easy for intellectuals to say how bad things are. I can't solve this problem between Democrats and Republicans. But in every challenge I face at Penn, I look for ways to make things better. To make lemons into lemonade.

Q: How do you think your daughter's career/family balance will differ from yours?

Gutmann: Young men and women alike are looking for a better balance than was the case in the baby boom generation. They want more time with family than a lot of high-powered careers have permitted. Family friendly workplaces are going to be more successful in recruiting the very best candidates.

When young women ask me how I managed my family and my career, I tell them, "Don't look at me as the model of a balanced life. I am married to a wonderful man, and I am also married to Penn."

I give them two pieces of advice. The first is to find work that you are passionate about, so it's not like going to work - you enjoy it.

The second is to marry well. I don't mean someone who is wealthy, but someone who wants to be married to someone who has a career. More and more men are happy to do that and want to do that.

There has been progress.

There wasn't one woman in the department of political science when I started as an assistant professor. Not one.

Today, half of Ivy League presidents are women, and there is a much higher percentage of women university presidents than ever before. The Fortune 500 have a long way to go. But the ones with more women on their boards do better.

Q: You might not like this question . . .

Gutmann: Then maybe I should end here.

Q: I think you can handle it. People remark about how perfectly put together you always look in public. To succeed, must women still hold themselves to a higher standard in their appearance?

Gutmann: That's easy. Yes.


Is it fair?

Gutmann: No.

Contact staff writer Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or


comments powered by Disqus